It seems that every time one turns on the TV, something, somewhere, is going catastrophically wrong. Whether it be Hurricane Ian tearing through Cuba and Florida, war raging in Eastern Europe, or floods devastating Pakistan, there has been no shortage of crises in 2022 — both natural and human-caused.
And as the climate continues to warm, extreme weather events and other natural disasters are only expected to occur more frequently, which may also potentially lead to greater overall regional and global instability. In response, some groups working to build decentralized community resilience are now turning to blockchain and Web3 tools to help strengthen their initiatives.
The United States experienced one of its worst natural disasters in modern history when the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the New Orleans area on Aug. 29, 2005. The morning prior, the National Weather Service had issued an ominous warning to the residents of the city and the surrounding area:
“MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. […] POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.
Unfortunately, the bulletin proved to be accurate. Thousands of people lost their lives, and millions were left homeless after the city’s outdated, flawed levee system was overwhelmed by flood waters.
The government’s response to the disaster, particularly that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was one of utter dysfunction. Affected residents were left with little to no assistance from government authorities, instead banding together as communities and decentralized networks to support one another. The crisis served as a wake-up call for many that the government and its centralized institutions won’t always be there to save them in a catastrophe.
Three and a half years later, Satoshi Nakamoto mined the genesis block of the Bitcoin blockchain — born out of another major emergency, the global financial crisis, which devastated economies worldwide in 2008. Like Hurricane Katrina, it opened the eyes of a generation to the reality that established systems propped up by politicians and government officials are actually rather fragile. Given that governments may fail to protect their citizens, it is often up to communities to build alternative support structures.
Since the genesis of Bitcoin, the crypto and blockchain space has greatly evolved and expanded, heavily fueled by the growth of Ethereum and its smart contract functionalities. Today, the Web3 ecosystem built around networks like Ethereum is thriving, and even the greenest of crypto participants can mint tokens, drop NFT collections and vote in DAOs with a few minutes of research and a few clicks.
Should it come as a surprise, then, that more and more people in the world of community resilience are turning to blockchain technology to help prepare for and recover from disasters? For these organizers, Web3 solutions such as multisig wallets and DAOs provide a level of democratic governance that can’t be achieved through traditional systems, while also offering innovative ways to fundraise and empower residents. But convincing their peers that it’s worth embracing these tools can be an uphill battle, and not everyone believes they will make any significant difference.
A history of innovation
People and communities using decentralized technologies in response to disasters is nothing new. After Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City in October 2012, for example, the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative established a decentralized wireless network called Red Hook WiFi by using mesh networking that allowed residents to communicate and coordinate while power and internet service were still out in the neighborhood. And as the military conflict in Ukraine has proven, having access to cryptocurrency during large-scale crises can be invaluable, especially if one needs to flee the country.
One area within the broader community resilience space that has proven itself particularly forward-thinking is mutual aid — and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed resulted in an explosion of interest in it. According to the book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) by Seattle University law professor Dean Spade, mutual aid is, simply put, “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs” wherein we “choose to help each other out, share things, and put time and resources into caring for the most vulnerable.” Magazine spoke to Spade, who adds:
“It’s only mutual aid if it comes from a shared understanding that the systems in place aren’t going to meet the needs and also caused the crisis that we’re in, and if it includes an invitation to collective action.
The argument is that governments and large nonprofits are generally incapable of — or uninterested in — truly meeting everyone’s needs. These systemic failures are then amplified in times of disaster, such as during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In a sense, mutual aid is a decentralized approach to disaster management that takes power away from centralized gatekeepers and puts it in the hands of communities. As Spade describes it, “Mutual aid is something that is decentralized and dispersed, not something where a certain group holds the purse strings or has all the materials and is distributing them. The whole point of it would be that everyone would have everything they need.”
Why centralized institutions falter
To further explore why centralized responses to major disasters are often so inefficient, Magazine spoke to Devin Balkind, a technologist who has been active in numerous mutual aid initiatives in New York City over the past decade. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, “I firsthand saw how the disaster management establishment works, what their organizing principles are,” Balkind says. “They are a giant, multifaceted set of bureaucracies. And, you know, they don’t do a very good job.”
Mutual aid groups can be nimble, easily adopting new technologies without the burdens of bureaucracy that come with centralized institutions. Balkind shares how volunteers responding to Sandy started using Google Sheets to collaborate — and how government workers were prohibited from accessing Google documents from their work devices.
It can take months to years for governments and large nonprofits to enact new technology policies, and they often enter into multiyear contracts with IT providers and software companies, which restricts their ability to adopt new technologies even if they want to. This creates an environment where idealistic new hires who want to shake things up frequently burn out and quit, leaving those content with the status quo in the majority and, even worse, in charge.
As COVID-19 spread through New York City and the government imposed lockdown measures, Balkind helped launch a website, Mutual Aid NYC, that connected mutual aid groups with those looking to volunteer and those seeking help. Balkind and his associates were able to prop up the website quickly at a time when the city was struggling to share basic information with the public. By December 2020, the website had been viewed over 250,000 times.
According to Spade, it’s not necessarily that mutual aid groups intentionally seek to be on the cutting edge of innovation, rather that:
“We’re going to use whatever seems easiest, whatever’s going to work. And when it’s not working, we’re going to ditch it.
Mutual aid, meet Web3
One of the many mutual aid groups to form during the height of the pandemic is New York City-based Pact, which formed with the goal of raising money for grassroots organizations doing important work on the ground but lacking visibility. Pact established a subscription-based donation service where supporters could pledge $3, $10 or $25 to support the group’s goals. Each month, Pact would promote a different NYC-based mutual aid organization and donate the raised funds to that group.
At the end of 2021, Pact made the strategic decision to pivot toward Web3. The Pact team tells Magazine that “while our team of five followed cooperative principles, the tools we were using prevented us from having true democratic ownership.” For example, the group was initially incorporated as an LLC and had to pick one person to have their name associated with the corporation and its bank account. “We wanted to find a way to have true democratic ownership.”
The group transitioned to a DAO and launched a crowdfunding campaign on Mirror.xyz, which is more than halfway toward achieving its goal of raising 20 ETH. While backers receive PACT tokens, the group doesn’t actually use them and considers them “purely for fun and engagement.” Instead, one can join the DAO in a variety of ways, including participating in the crowdfunding but also by subscribing with dollars, contributing to the project or being a part of a like-minded organization.
Pact writes, “Shared values (and not financialized tokens) are at the core of our community.” Altogether, Pact reports that it has raised over $30,000 for mutual aid, organizing and educational initiatives as of September 2022. Pact tells Magazine that blockchain-based solutions offer several advantages:
“Multisignature wallets allow you to share funds easily across individuals and groups. Smart contracts allow you to program bylaws and agreements into technological actions. On-chain voting provides total transparency and asynchronous connection among a group (or multiple) in its decision-making. These are all tools that enticed our team and solved some of the collaboration problems we were facing.
Taking the power back
Collaboration is the name of the game in community resilience, and another mutual aid-focused organization that Pact has worked alongside is the Paperboy Prince Love Gallery. The Brooklyn-based gallery was founded in September 2020 by Paperboy Prince — a community activist, musician and artist. It has given away millions of dollars worth of free food and even provided 200 days of free housing in a tiny house it built on its property during the worst of the pandemic.
Prince has long been an active participant in the cryptosphere. In 2018, they released a crypto-themed rap album titled Crypto Cowboy, featuring songs such as “How to Sell CryptoCurrency” and “Big Bitcoin BTC.” Prince has run for both NYC mayor and U.S. Congress and has described themselves as a “Web3 candidate.” They tell Magazine, “We come to revolutionize and transform everything that we’re a part of, and the Web3 world is no different.”
Prince has a long list of Web3-focused plans for the gallery that they hope will strengthen and fund its mutual initiatives. Earlier in 2022, they announced the Paperboy Love DAO, whose members will help fund and make decisions around the gallery’s food distribution work, community space and events, housing efforts, and more. Prince is also working with an artist on an NFT collection, the proceeds of which will go toward the Paperboy Prince Love Gallery and its mutual aid efforts.
“A lot of these projects are experiments that we’ve done without saying, ‘Oh, we’re gonna wait for some big crypto NFT fundraiser,’” Prince tells Magazine. “This is what we’ve done because this is what we do. So, we’re saying, let’s even take this to the next level. We’re ready to take this to a higher level with more capital. We can build more, and we can teach more people.”
For Prince, embracing blockchain and bridging it with community resilience is not just about finding new ways to raise money and organize — it’s also about taking power from elite technocrats and bringing it back to the community. It’s responsible leadership that stakes the community’s future in the correct places, argues Prince, saying:
“A vocal and influential minority of the internet is shifting into Web3 and using this to influence our world and the world around us. […] If we’re not focusing on that as a way to organize, then we’re being neglectful.
Not everyone is on board with bringing blockchain and crypto over to the community resilience space, however. Many are turned off by the potential climate impacts of proof-of-work blockchains, rampant pump-and-dump schemes, libertarian influence on the industry, lack of regulation and association with financial markets — not to mention the negative reputation of NFTs.
“The first time I ever posted about NFTs, I lost like 500 followers,” says Prince, who was met with reactions like “Gross,” “Huge L” and “Bad call.” Prince tells Magazine, “There could be a lot of misinformation and folks that don’t understand that just because you turn away from something, it doesn’t mean it’s going away.” For the community activist, if you don’t learn and utilize new technologies, they will be used against you:
“Use these platforms for what your goals are and your community goals are. Don’t let them use you.
According to Pact, “All they see are the current use cases, which are hyperfinancialized, capitalistic and superfluous. So, when they hear about a project like ours, they think this is what we’re trying to do to mutual aid — turn it into a JPEG, financialize it and/or run it as a scam. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, we respect their skepticism and take it as our duty to show them what these tools and our organization can do with them to benefit our local community.”
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Apart from ideological barriers, there is also the simple fact that crypto is still relatively obscure for many people, outside of when Bitcoin price movements make the news. Using crypto wallets and accessing blockchain networks still requires particular technological know-how. “The challenge specific to DAOs, which is a place we are inching into because of its shortcomings, is in the accessibility of the technology itself,” says the Pact team.
“At present, setting up a wallet, purchasing cryptocurrency, etc., is not accessible or used by most people.
Blockchain is no silver bullet
At the end of the day, tools are just tools — the real work in building resilience to crises is done on the ground level. And that work is difficult. There are no shortcuts to network building and community organizing. There is no technology that can replace outreach, collaboration, trust-building, empowering individuals and showing up for one another, and that work is fundamental in building community networks that will help neighbors survive the next major crisis.
“For me, doing mutual aid for the last 25 years in lots of different contexts, the problem has never been a tech problem,” says law professor Spade. “It’s that enough people are not doing it. The real problem is that people are at home playing video games and looking at their phones and are feeling really isolated and dejected and are not connecting with community members.”
But that’s not to say that new technology cannot help strengthen those essential efforts. Technology has proven quite useful during a wide range of recent crises, as demonstrated by the experiences of Balkind, Pact, Prince and others.
“Web3’s biggest strength is in coordination, which is exactly what individuals do during times of crisis,” says Pact. “Web3 tools would allow them to do that by giving them ways to immediately pool and share resources with not only their neighbors but globally, tap into existing networks for support, and make decisions democratically and transparently.”
For Spade, technology is neutral. It can be used to strengthen communities or tear them down — to help free us or help oppress us. The bigger question is: How is the technology actually being used? And can we recognize that technology won’t save us? “I don’t think any technology is inherently positive or negative,” says Spade. “The question is, Can we not fetishize them or glamorize them?” He adds:
“I think we should just be careful with the idea that Web3 stuff is going to fix everything.
As for centralized institutions like governments, the technologist Balkind — himself a believer in the potential of blockchain technology — believes New York City could transform its emergency management infrastructure for the better were it not burdened by systemic inefficiencies. After all, the city is known for its long, rich history of crypto culture and innovation. “Would having competency around building web applications that might use a blockchain, could that be a useful tool in the tool chest? Of course,” he tells Magazine. However, the city still has a ways to go first: “It’s not even close in terms of just being able to deliver usable apps that could be helpful for emergency management.”
Balkind shares a suggestion for the city and its network of community organizers: “If I were New York City, or if I were an infinitely funded community organizer type, I would be building volunteer apps with game mechanics rewarding people with stablecoins. That would be what I would do. I think that would be cool.” However, he adds, “The other thing — this is a big indicator that I think blockchain is not ready for that — is that the user experiences on these things are terrible.”
The potential of blockchain-based tools to strengthen community resilience is a growing factor for an increasing number of people in the space, but what will the future of community collaboration actually look like? Will mutual aid groups find the ideal balance between boots-on-the-ground organizing and implementing innovative technological solutions? Pact, for its part, had the following to share in a recent blog post:
“We needed to step back and remind ourselves that organizers know what’s best for them. All we can do is provide them with the information and spaces for dialogue. […] If we see value in these tools, we can show them by sharing that value in our combined efforts. We have to meet them in the struggle, support their work, and then offer our expertise when/if web3 tools come up organically as a solution.